Ever wondered what would happen if you locked 100 museum nerds in a museum for three days?

At the start of August I got to go to camp. I do a lot of camping, but this was the first time I’d been to camp since 1984.There were fewer lanyards, friendship bracelets, and god’s eyes crafted than the last time I went to camp, but it was still chock full of fun stuff. Listen, y’all– I got to go to Museum Camp

While there were most definitely fun and games (literally and figuratively),

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there was also a lot of thinking about serious topics (sometimes in ways that were a lot more fun than thinking about serious topics usually turns out).

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The theme for camp was spacemaking:

“You can make space by empowering others. You can make space by inviting non-traditional partners into your work. You can make space by giving yourself permission or time or a paintbrush. Making space gives us a safe place to feel the fear and courage necessary for us to grow as individuals and organizations.”

For three days about 100 people- museum professionals, community members, activists, students, staff, and interns all but took over the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. (Elise Granata has a great post about the the process of co-creating the museum as a safe space for the camp here).

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Each day was broken into a wide variety of tasks, discussions, and experiences. We spent much of the three days working in teams,

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Team Ritual #7– Simon, me, and Vania

with work sessions interspersed between pecha kucha style spark talks and launchpad workshops.

I *loved* the workshops, particularly the first one I got to take part in: “An Introduction to Science Fiction Prototyping” led by Gregory Stock. It was a great way to put into action the idea of making space– for creativity, for learning, for fun, for yourself. Actively thinking about ways to create that space for ourselves in the work we do was a built into many of the sessions and team tasks throughout the weekend, and was a good, steady reminder to think about the thing we often put on the backburner: ourselves.

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For many of us, this eventually manifests itself in the form of burnout, and thinking about ways to unplug the burnout cycle was a truly fruitful process. If burnout is something you or someone in your life is grappling with, camper (and all around awesome person) Sara Devine talks about her working-through-burnout lessons from the weekend here. (You should go watch it).

I really appreciated the back and forth between the working sessions and the spark talks, which felt like touchstones, reminding me of the big picture reasons that had brought me to Museum Camp to begin with. There were some amazing, inspiring stories in these talks, and some incredible bravery from the speakers, from the courage to tell a secret to the courage to see an opportunity in a vacant lot and act on it. There were two that really struck a chord that resonated with me all through the weekend, and have been continuing to ring ever since. One was Beck Tench‘s talk about swimming with sharks, and how we often find that the shark we are swimming with is ourselves.

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Slide from Beck Tench’s spark talk

The other was Porchia Moore‘s talk about making space for everyone. She cited the recently released Mellon Foundation report on diversity in American art museums. Or rather, on the lack of diversity in many departments in American museums.

PieChart Mellon report

It is space that must be made– in our programming, in our interactions, in our partnering, in our hiring, in our recruiting– and it is on all of us in the field to make that space happen. I saw her give a great Ignite talk at MCN last year that will be the most thought-provoking six minutes of your day:

From these two talks I felt like I walked away with as many questions as I did answers. (And perhaps that’s as it should be. I mean, who has all the answers?) Here are some of the ones that I wrote down at some point over the course of camp:

  • For whom are we, as museums, as institutions, making space? For whom, as staff members, colleagues, coworkers, and managers, are we making space?
  • How can we help and support visitors to make space for themselves in our institutions?
  • How can we create situations or spaces in which visitors can empower themselves?
  • How can we support each other (colleagues, coworkers, supervisors, reports, volunteers, visitors) in their space making?

Big questions. Important questions. I’ve got a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours.

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The setting for this adventure was okay….

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if you’re into that natural beauty stuff….

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TOASTED FLUFF TOPPING. Just sayin'.

TOASTED FLUFF TOPPING. Just sayin’.

Also: tacos. And ice cream. And the very best bus station noodles ever consumed. And lots and lots of laughing with awesome people.

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A huge thank you to all of the amazing people who made this such a thought provoking, affecting experience. Nina Simon and Beck Tench for creating the space for this experience; all of the staff, interns, and volunteers at the MAH for being super awesome and welcoming; the fantastic co-creators of Team Ritual; and all of my fellow campers for being such a great group of people to spend three intense days with.

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Art as Play

Yesterday the interpretation team took a field trip to the Toledo Museum of Art to check out Play Time. Associate Curator of contemporary art Halona Norton-Westbrook, who co-curated the exhibition along with Associate Director Amy Gilman, spoke with us about the origins of this experimental exhibition as we visited the included works installed throughout the museum.

Harmonic Motion by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and Charles Richard MacAdam

We had visited Harmonic Motion first thing upon entering the museum and it was interesting to hear how the museum’s original vision, and interactive space for all ages, tended to be more attractive to, or at least more actively engaged with, by children than adult visitors.

Anything Can Break by Pinaree Sanpitak

Anything Can Break was another work in the exhibition some of us had encountered before meeting up with Norton-Westbrook. This was one of my favorites because I had been lucky enough to spend some time in the room with it completely alone. The work contains small cameras that are installed in hanging boxes, which capture visitor movements that then trigger musical sounds to play through speakers. When multiple people interacted with it simultaneously, sounds played in combination with one another creating a completely spontaneous and dynamic experience. My solitary interaction with Anything Can Break was both an unexpected and satisfying experience as I felt I had conversed with the artwork itself.

Animation by Stina Köhnke

Another one of my favorites was Animation – a work by American artist Stina Köhnke that seemed to be a wall of stuffed toys that grew out of a chair. Actually, I had discovered this work on the TMA’s website the day before so I was looking forward to seeing it in the galleries and it did not disappoint. Mountains of plush toys and furry animals brought back memories of arranging my own substantial collection of stuffed animals in my childhood bedroom after hours of play. While standing in front of the work, we witnessed a little girl sprint toward it to touch the animals only to be pulled away by an embarrassed mother. Norton-Westbrook explained this was a common occurrence with this particular work and it was something that had come to be expected and staff in the galleries were continually refining the best ways to balance the need to protect artworks with some of the visceral responses. What other response could one expect from child when they encountered such a magical sight!

Swing Space by Jillian Mayer

Swing Space by Jillian Mayer

Swing Space was a group favorite as the act of swinging elicits the same feeling of joy from adults as it does from children. Four swings installed in an unfinished gallery space was paired with projected patches of blue sky for anyone who wanted to recreate the experience of an endless summer day spent on the playground. The swings were full up when we entered but once the children gave up their seats, the adults milling around in the background (us) quickly took their place. As one of our team said later, what could be better than swinging in a museum?!

Photo: Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion, Toledo by SANAA, 2006

Our experience with Play Time next took us over to the magnificent Glass Pavilion where Norton-Westbrook introduced us to Glass Mountain and Masking Tape Installation, works that resulted from two artists’ onsite creations. She noted it was key that Play Time continued to evolve over the course of the exhibition so that it was, like many of the works themselves, constantly in motion.

Blubber by Mark di Suvero

Blubber by Mark di Suvero

As an interpretation team working in an art museum, we often find ourselves grappling with how to facilitate opportunities for visitors to meaningfully engage with art. I’d say with Play Time Toledo got it perfect with an innovative idea—unlock the child-like wonder that lies dormant in most adults by offering up opportunities to connect with art through the activity of play.